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How the travel and tourism industry should respond to swine flu threat

Written by editor

The recent arrival of swine flu has once again proven the validity of Talcott Parson’s famous statement that “Society is an integrated system of social structures and functions.” Tourism professionals

The recent arrival of swine flu has once again proven the validity of Talcott Parson’s famous statement that “Society is an integrated system of social structures and functions.” Tourism professionals have once again had to deal with an issue that while outside of their industry may greatly impact their industry. The swine flu has added a new wrinkle in the world of tourism. Already plagued by an economic downturn, difficult travel rules, and business travel cutbacks, the tourism industry must now face the threat of a possible global pandemic, if not now then possibly in the future. The classical statement that “perceptions are true in their consequences” could not be more accurate when it comes to tourism. We often forget that no one needs to travel, thus the traveling public can easily be frightened. The best antidote to false perceptions is to know the facts and to respond to these facts in a responsible and accurate way.

To add to tourism’s many woes government officials and tourism industry representatives have not always been on the same page. For example, the traveling and vacationing public have received multiple mixed messages. One on hand tourism officials have told travel professionals and the traveling public that there is no need to panic or to overreact, and on the other hand, people such as US Vice President Joe Biden have suggested that the public stay home or at least not use major forms of public transportation. These mixed messages have added to a sense of confusion and the public’s lack of trust. While it is too early to determine what the illness’ collateral damage (fallout) vis-à-vis the tourism industry will be, nevertheless, there are already a great many lessons that tourism professional can learn from this event.

Do not think in terms of a single cause. In other words, the world of travel is a lot more complex than any one factor. When people decide to travel or not to travel, remember that there are a number of factors that enter into their decision making process. It is easy to blame one single factor for a downturn in sales, but the reality is different. Tourism sales depend on a bouquet of factors that range from a traveler’s personal economic and sociological needs to a locale’s reputation, from the quality of your customer service to the level of security that a locale may provide.

Obtain and provide the most accurate information possible. While tourism professionals are not expected to be public health professionals, they should consult with their local medical professionals to provide the public with the most accurate information regarding their specific area. That means do not either exaggerate a medical emergency or down play it. Make sure that people know that the information that you are providing is good as of a specific date. Make your information prudent, accurate and timely.

Be well aware that the media may use forms of hyperbole when reporting on illnesses. For example, in a recent CNN article on their website the following was written: “If there’s a blessing in the current swine flu epidemic, it’s how benign the illness seems to be outside the central disease cluster in Mexico. But history offers a dark warning to anyone ready to write off the 2009 H1N1 virus.” CNN’s message is that things will get worse not better. There of course is no way of knowing how accurate these reports will become.

Remember that: “History is not predictive science.” While historical data can be very helpful, it is essential to remember that no two historical situations are alike. We have learned a great deal from what worked and did not work in the past. In the case of pandemics modern science has come a long way in finding solutions and information can be transmitted from one place to another almost instantaneously. The most dangerous thing is to draw false historical comparisons. Think through what lessons history teaches us and what is different about the current situation.

Do not fall into the trap that believing that pandemics are one-time events. Pandemics often have a life of their own. A pandemic may burn out or may repeat itself. The bottom line is vigilance is essential, when it appears that the pandemic has subsided, use lessons learned so as to be better prepared for the next crisis that may be coming down the road. That means that it is essential that tourism offices and professionals think clearly about how they will be able to provide safe and secure travel not only in the present but also in the future.

Develop a “safe tourism board.” This board should meet regularly and chat about potential problems before they happen, Include people from all walks of life, thus representatives of law enforcement, public administrations, medical services, local hospitals and media representatives need to come together and see how each component within your local tourism industry can work together.

Act rather than react. For example, Make sure that health department carefully inspect restaurants, provide courses for tourism employees on the importance of frequently washing hands for both their safety and that of the traveling public’s and emphasize the need to avoid coming to work when sick. As many tourism employees fear losing a day’s pay develop a system that allows sick employees to stay home without loss of pay while assuring employers that their workers are not taking advantage of the situation.

Use this current situation to review all of medical and other risk management procedures. Make sure that you guests are well informed as to what medical services are available, what costs are and where these services are located. All too often we forget that our guests may be unfamiliar with local medical facilities and practices. Assure visitors that you will be able to provide them with a list of doctors who are multi-lingual and provide health and safety information that is clear and precise. Do not focus so much on one factor, such as the swine flu, that other problems are ignored. Visitors are human beings and as such a whole range of medical problems will occur, from dental problems to lost medicines. Then think about other types of risks and make sure that you have a plan to deal with these risks. Never forget that the cheapest crisis management is to avoid the crisis or to be prepared for it.

In down markets, market! This is not the time to shy away from marketing, rather develop a clear and cohesive message and then market that message. Tourism and hospitality are all about caring, use your marketing tools to show people how you care and what you are doing to provide them with a safe and secure travel experience.

Develop money back guarantees. In an interconnected world in which it is often difficult to cancel a trip more and more people have come to see travel and tourism as a form of “gamble.” To encourage people to travel develop a marketing plant that indicates that your locale or tourism business will do everything possible, in cases of emergencies, to protect the traveling public from economic loss. These protection plans may include refunding of deposits, ending cancellation fees, permitting rescheduling or developing a voucher system for travel at a later date.

Dr. Peter E. Tarlow is the President of T&M, a founder of the Texas chapter of TTRA and a popular author and speaker on tourism. He can be reached via the email address [email protected]